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Modeling is a fundamental but often undervalued element of the design process. Before ground is broken or the first nail is purchased, modeling allows us to assess, develop and perfect the structure or system we plan to build.

Without modeling the things we build would be less efficient, lack functionality and they would miss numerous opportunities to improve. On the other side of that coin, with better modeling, the things we build can be more efficient, more functional and discover new ways to improve on their original design.

The Unified Modeling Language (UML) sets out four basic points to explain what modeling is and why we use them:

* A model is a simplification of reality.
* We build models so that we can better understand the system we are developing.
* We build models of complex systems because human’s cannot comprehend such a system in its entirety.
* Every project can benefit from some modeling.

In science, models are a mentally visual way of linking theory with experiment, and they guide research by being simplified representations of an imagined reality that enable predictions to be developed and tested by experiment.

In the building industry, modeling provides architects and others with the ability to visualize entire systems, assess different options and communicate designs more clearly before taking on the risks – technical, financial or otherwise – of actual construction. In this age of environmental responsibility, a key element of design for smart buildings is energy modeling, to make buildings more energy efficient and therefore “greener.” By improving our building energy modeling we can find new and better avenues for efficiency, to make our buildings even more environmentally and cost friendly.

“Existing computer tools and methods focused on building energy modeling are capable tools that can provide accurate results; however, this process can be faster, automated, less error-prone and the outputs can be more detailed or granular. Accomplishing these improvements can make building energy modeling smarter,” explains Ehsan Kamel assistant professor at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT).

Through the increasing use of sensors and other technology, such as 3D laser scanning, we have made vast improvements to the building energy modeling process in recent years. These developments give us a detailed geometrical overview of building elements and offer extensive granular energy consumption data. However, a comprehensive approach is needed to include all the building properties and steps of simulation to evaluate building’s energy performance.

“First, to improve the modeling process, adopting building information modeling (BIM) can improve the process, which is also adopted by different researchers,” says Kamel. “Using BIM eliminates the need for remodeling the building in a separate computer tool for energy modeling and automatically transfers all the required information to a proper tool or file format for energy analysis.”

BIM has quickly become THE software for building design, and each iteration sees improvements and expansions into new areas for the design, constructions and even operational processes of buildings. When it comes to modeling, however, interoperability with key software, such as Revit and EnergyPlus, is still an issue. Users report data transfer issues on important building systems like heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC), for example. Better integration with BIM should be high on the list of upcoming building energy modeling improvements.

The granularity of energy modeling outputs could also benefit from greater detail in many respects. Consider heat transfer, for example, only by accounting for the heat transfer rates through every door, window, wall and so on, can we get the real picture of heat loss in order to work that into HVAC and other systems.

While leading modeling software like EnergyPlus is capable of calculating such data, none of the conventional energy modeling tools’ user interfaces collect and visualize these outputs in the detail we might expect. Such developments would take modeling to a new level and allow us to build even more efficient buildings.

Addressing the data granularity issue and enhancing BIM interoperability are just two of the ways building energy modeling can be improved. Kamel, along with Ali M. Memari, professor at Penn State University, are working on a study entitled Automated Building Energy Modeling and Assessment Tool (ABEMAT) that aims to address these issues and more.

The bottom line is that, with better modeling we can create better buildings.